Throughout my journey of twenty one years I’ve regrettably never traveled that far. Whether it was the comfort of home or the fear of leaving it, my ideals of how to expand my life didn’t involve getting far.
There are certain special times in life however when a precarious risk combines with perfect timing to bring about sweeping changes that ultimately pave the way for future endeavors.
When I left my home in mid-August I had no idea where the thought of volunteering in Yosemite for three months would bring me. To be honest I was scared beyond belief, wondering if I’d made a serious mistake by abandoning my creature comforts for a tent barely big enough to sleep in and a valley I knew absolutely nothing about. Below the layer of enthusiasm stoked by the notion of discovery laid complete doubt. I was going to a extremely unfamiliar place filled with complete strangers, hoping that my pure determination would overpower any sense of fear or doubt that stirred up.
In truth what I’ve learned is that it’s alright for those feelings to linger. They are a natural part of living, evolving, along with expanding as a person. Without risk we cannot grow, likewise without the threat of failure the notion of success is nullified.
My previous life experiences could not be held up as evidence in order to provide an guide on how to live this new chapter. Instead I would have to write my own, heading into the complete unknown in order to bring about the change I needed.
Yosemite’s massive scale is immediately recognized, nothing could really prepare me for it. From the point of entrance into the valley your entire world is bordered by massive cliffs jutting upward from the floor below.
Here the biome is also completely different, the mountains make their own weather independent of the forecast. One minute it could be bright and sunny then pouring down rain an instant later. The valley is also one of the most visited places in all of park’s districts.
Even while arriving during the tapering off the tourist season I was astonished at just how many people could cram themselves into it. My first nights in Yosemite were spent adjusting to my new environment, thinking about the amount of information that I would need to learn in order to not only direct people around the park but also take care of myself while staying there.
Extremely overwhelming would be an appropriate series of words to describe how I felt waking up the first morning after I’d arrived.
Finding your bearings creatively in a new biome is something I always struggle with. The Yosemite Valley is a massive place to find a starting point with, even with a plan finding my way around took some adjusting. During my stay I made it a point to get out every weekend to get photos while hiking. It became a sort of self motivating challenge I put on myself to not stagnate.
Exploring on my days off gave me a very in depth look at what sort of naturally occurring beauty the park had to offer. Thundering waterfalls that feed into the valley below, hiking trails that push you thousands of feet higher, rock formations carved by ancient glaciers. Whatever creative elements you needed as photographer, Yosemite had them. My experience in composing photos in the valley boiled down to a simple formula: timing and light. I had to be at the right place to catch the light casting across the major features of Yosemite.
The first trail I embarked to test my skills was Upper Yosemite Falls, admittedly one of the toughest hikes in the valley purely because of the knee-destroying granite staircases. I’d started way too late to have any hope to reach the top, to add insult to injury it was also one of the hottest days that week topping off at about 100 degrees even.
This combined with my naive concept of just “toughing it out” resulted in tapping out early due to extreme water consumption. I pushed on for a distance I thought was still doable until my water bladder had ran completely dry. After a small break of path contemplation I’d arrived at the choice of pushing on just a little bit further until 3:30pm (I had started at 11am). The time came around just before the turn of 3:00pm when I realized my auxiliary water bottles only had half a liter in both of them.
About three quarters of the way up the trail I was extremely disappointed that I’d only made it this far with the amount of time I’d spent pushing up hill. But I knew because of my experience in the desert that death by dehydration was no joke and instead of becoming a search and rescue mission I decided to start heading back.
Overall, that choice to head back took me putting my male driven stubbornness aside to think about the actual consequences of getting gassed out on a trail like Upper Falls. To put things in perspective, this was my first weekend in the valley, I was not in the best shape yet, to top it out I’d also neglected to start earlier in the cooler morning as well. Because I had not even started my volunteer term I thought it best to retire before being destroyed prior to even beginning.
In retrospect, I didn’t respect the power of the valley and it ultimately costed me an opportunity to accomplish getting all the way up the falls. One of the first lessons Yosemite taught me was to respect the scale of it.
Preparing myself for hikes became paramount in my process of getting photos of the park. My second excursion on the Mist trail to Vernal and Nevada Falls put me in the position to test them again. I’d learned from previous mistakes, starting earlier in the morning to reach the top of Vernal Fall. After about an hour and a half of pushing uphill I’d found myself staring in the misting, roaring act of nature that till this day still astonishes me.
The last two hundred feet of elevation climb of Vernal is a dauntingly inclined path up a set of granite stairs made slippery by the mist of the fall itself. I took extreme caution to not end up with a torqued ankle despite wearing pretty hefty hiking boots.
On the higher part of the trail only a small section of chain-link fence bolted into the rock separates you from the roaring waters beneath. As someone absolutely terrified of heights this became a point in my life where the act of pocketing fear became a necessity. I took a small break alongside the trail to let people pass to focus on just getting up the steep path. I’ve had a couple of “just go for it” moments in my life and I would definitely count trudging up the mess of slippery granite stairs among them.
When you’re alone in those kind of situations your mind goes into this weird kind of autopilot mode. One where your senses are reduced to pushing forward and thinking about pushing forward, at least in my experience. The thought did present itself in my head occasionally as I huffed my knees over the waterfall steps, “man, this is one of the coolest things I’ve ever done or seen.”
The valley opened to me finally and I saw the grandeur that attracted millions of visitors per year. I took a small rest to dry off and regain some calories via granola bars with tea. My goal for that day was just to reach the top of Vernal Falls in one piece. After a similar moment of path contemplation like the one I’d held on the trail to Upper Falls I’d made the decision to keep pushing to Nevada fall.
To the left of Nevada fall Liberty Cap stands at an impressive 7,080 feet,accentuating the vastness of the valley in terms of verticality. At this point in my hike I decided to take a longer route around to the fall via the John Muir trail that connects at Clark Point. Simply because I could tell my knees were not going to survive the long series of steps back down Vernal fall. In terms of distance, it wasn’t that much farther and for someone who enjoys to be alone in the wilderness it turned out to be the better choice. The short distance from Clark Point to Nevada I began to experience what the Sierra Nevadas truly looked like at higher elevations.
Nevada falls itself is a roaring spectacle of water plunging over the side of a huge cliff. After reaching the top a small beach bordered by slabs of granite form a plateau that’s perfect for resting and taking in the view. From the top of the falls the entire valley opens up for seems like forever, even the smoke from the raging wildfires near the park couldn’t detract from that sort of view. Feverishly I started photographing the major features, trying to frame the granite slabs together with the beautiful river that flowed into the beast of a waterfall. Because of the aforementioned smoke I was began to frame vertically a lot more in order to cut the hazy sky out as much as I could. In my mind I had spent all morning just getting to this spot and I wasn’t walking back to the valley empty handed.
Manzanita bushes bustling with ripe berries lined the sides of sloping granite as I pushed the last thousand feet. Straight across the valley I could hear and now start to see the cascading waterfall I was pushing to. Wildlife in the form of chipmunks,squirrels, birds, and the occasional spotting of tracks of the elusive American black bear started to reinforce the fact that I was indeed entering wilderness.
Alone, I still retained the fact that bears roamed trails like this daily in the Yosemite Valley, I made sure to always make enough noise, keep my wits about me and look for signs of recent bear activity. Although it is extremely rare to see one in the daytime is was still the possibility that kept me on edge. Occasionally I would stop to check for broken branches, dropping piles, or tracks just to keep my paranoia at bay. Fortunately no bears were ran into that day and as I reached Nevada fall the amount of people starting to slowly increase, making security in the power of numbers.
Luck was also on my side somewhat during my short exploration around to get photos that would in my mind satisfy the effort made to get them.As the morning progressed into the afternoon people started to flow in steadily. And just like that my call to leave was answered and I began my descent back down to the valley, snapping photos the entire way. Overall it was day of hiking spent well that resulted in some incredible compositions the only reinforced the ideal that I was in a extremely special place. As I crawled back into my tent that night I carried with me an extreme sense of accomplishment. I had gone out with a goal and crushed it. But if the valley had taught me anything at that point it was that this was only the tip of the photographic iceberg.
David is a California based landscape photographer with a love for national parks. Check out his work at his Instagram account @davec130!
Stay Tuned for Part II of David's Journey through Yosemite.